As a child, LouAnn Pickering always knew two things – that she loved the
mysterious, magical feeling of worshipping in church, and that little girls like
her did not grow up to be priests.
Now that she is Vicar at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Mother LouAnn likes to tell the story of how her belief that ordination was an impossible dream changed in a dazzling moment of recognition of God’s presence.
The story goes back to when her Methodist mother and Roman Catholic stepfather decided to compromise on the religious upbringing of their blended family. That was how 6-year-old LouAnn, her sister and two brothers ended up attending a series of Episcopal churches – a new one each time the family moved to a new town.
“There was one place that was a ‘smells and bells’ church – I fell in love with the beauty and mystery of the experience,” she says. “I was so taken with all this that I created an ‘altar’ in my closet. I’d go in there and feel very reverent.” Then the deaconess of the church informed her that the priesthood was for men only. “That was the day I took my altar down.”
Family life was “complicated.” LouAnn was 18 months old when her father, a popular Iowa high school football coach, died in a car accident. Her mother’s remarriage resulted in new siblings and frequent relocations for her stepfather’s job. After finally settling in Portland in the early ‘70s, LouAnn got an undergraduate degree with a double major in Communications and Education from Pacific University in Forest Grove, married her husband Jim, and started raising their two children.
Religion had no place in her busy schedule until – facing a need for children’s activities and a chronic lack of money – she decided to take her daughter to church “because Sunday School was free.” She chose a seat in the back of the church, but when the priest began to celebrate the Eucharist, she dissolved into tears. After the service, she found herself telling him the story of her life, and receiving affirmation that the mystery and beauty of God’s love had never left her. “I knew then that there was a God who was active in my world – not long ago and far-away, but here with me.”
LouAnn joined the church, discovered a love for teaching Sunday school, and in 1985 became director of religious education in the Lower School at Oregon Episcopal School. Students, families and those who worked with her soon affirmed the vocation to priesthood that she had felt so long ago. In 1990, Bishop Ladehoff and the Diocesan Commission on Ministry endorsed the unusual path of “reading for orders” for LouAnn. It was decided that if she could move through the same steps and pass the same ordination exams as seminarians, she would be ordained priest.
LouAnn took graduate courses at the University of Portland in the evenings and summers, spent a summer studying at the Episcopal Seminary at Sewanee, studied on-line through CDSP and worked with a an academic advisor appointed by the diocese. All of this was done while working full time at Oregon Episcopal School and raising two small children. After 6 years of hard work, she was ordained deacon in 1996 and priest in 1997. In 2004, she began her ministry at St. Gabriel’s as part time Vicar, working 50% for St. Gabe’s and 50% OES. In July of 2007 she began serving St. Gabriel’s as full time Vicar.
Mother LouAnn continues to embrace God’s presence, including in her ritual for preparing to lead weekly worship. This involves reading the “propers” (Bible readings assigned for each Sunday) several commentaries and other resources and allowing the information to “soak in” during the week. Saturday night finds her sitting quietly (sometimes in a hot tub) thinking through the lesson wanting to be taught. By Sunday morning she wakes up with just an outline in her mind. Once she’s preaching, even she’s sometimes surprised at where things go, but the congregation loves the combination of stories, experiences and characters that materialize in her memorable sermons.
To Mother LouAnn, God directing her words is a marvel – but it’s nothing new. “I discovered a call to do holy work,” she says. “So I’ve learned to rest in the embrace of the spirit – for as our own St. Gabriel reminds us in Luke’s Gospel ‘with God nothing shall be impossible’!”